LAST June 12, Independence Day, Fr. Arsenio “JJ” Jesena passed away and joined our Creator in heaven. He left our world for a better place that we call our real “home.”
Fr. Juni Jesena or JJ was a cousin to my beloved wife EJ who shared the same surname. They were close and our home was also blessed with his visits. He particularly liked our place and the village where we stay. Our park reminded him of the Ateneo de Manila campus and once remarked that it was even better.
(Another cousin close to Fr. JJ is Cesar Jesena, who is also known as “CJ.” He is the super-talented organizer of their clan, as shown in their reunions and other events.)
The roots of my wife and Fr. JJ are in Iloilo and in Manapla, Negros Occidental, where he was born on September 1940. His early studies were in Iloilo and Bacolod, but he finished high school in Davao. Fr. Asandas Balchand, S. J., was a classmate and they graduated together in 1956. For this article, I shall later quote from the Homily delivered Fr. Balchand in the funeral Mass of Fr. Jesena last Tuesday, June 16.
After graduation in high school, Fr. Jesena studied at the College of the Ateneo de Davao for three years as a scholar of the Jesuits. Fr. JJ went to Davao to prepare himself to join the Society of Jesus (S. J.). But his stay there in southern Mindanao was not without challenges.
In his first year in college in Davao, he was diagnosed with pulmonary tuberculosis (TB) after he spat blood. He was only 16 years old then and it made him afraid that he would not realize his dream and make it as a Jesuit priest. Other than the initial health issue, the future Fr. Jesena had to reckon with his new environment like being teased for his Ilonggo accent and the use of his native dialect.
The Father Provincial Antonio Moreno said on the eve of his interment that Fr. JJ did very well in his three years at the College of the Ateneo de Davao. This was in spite of what Fr. Balchand said that Fr. Jesena “was poor, lived with a relative, graduated with borrowed clothing, and oversized shoes lent to him by a Jesuit.” He “persevered in his resolve… [and]deepened his spiritual roots under the guidance of the excellent Jesuits.”
After his college in Davao, Juni Jesena joined the Jesuit Novitiate in 1959 when he was 19 years old. Fr. Balchand met again his friend and former high school classmate a year after when the he joined the Jesuits in 1960. It seemed that it was destiny that Fr. JJ Jesena was to be ordained later in November 1970 by no less than Pope Paul VI during his papal visit to Manila. Fr. Balchand said Fr. Jesena was “ordained slightly ahead of schedule.”
The Sacadas of Sugarland
One of the first things I learned about Fr. Jesena when I married his dear cousin is the article that he wrote on the plight of the sacadas, the migrant workers in the sugar plantations of Negros Occidental. A year before ordination in 1969, he went back home to Negros and worked as a sacada in nine haciendas there. Thus, he experienced first-hand the life of the sacadas with all their hardships and exploitation.
In 1971, the story on “The Sacadas of Sugarland” was published after he was encouraged by the Jesuits to share his experiences. The article of Fr. Jesena was considered as a “BOMBSHELL” that for the first time exposed the exploitation of the migrant sugar workers. It received much media coverage in the Philippines, as well as abroad. Those in their mid-60s, 70s and 80s today can still recall this controversial article that did not endear the author to the sugar planters of Negros.
“The poor laborer had no champion and had no voice. I was being invited by the sign of times and by Jesus in my heart to be that champion and that voice.” This was what inspired Fr. Jesena to write the article on the hardships of the sacadas. The conditions in the sugar farms in Negros have vastly improved over the past decades since the mid-1980s. Perhaps the alleviation of the sacadas’ misery can be attributed to this single story.
The article on “The Sacadas of Sugarland” became part of the list of reading in English classes at the Ateneo de Manila University, according to Fr. Balchand.
In hindsight, I can now understand why Fr. Jesena encouraged me to write about my own experiences when my family and I lived in Negros Occidental. I distinctly recall him asking me to write about it with his gentle voice and manner of speaking when he stayed at our place in Villa Valderama in Bacolod.
Social Apostolate in Bukidnon
Three years after his ordination and two years after the publication of his “The Sacadas of Sugarland,” Fr. Jesena was sent to Bukidnon in 1973 as the Director of the Social Action Center (SCA) under the Bishop Francisco “Cisco” Claver. They have met before in Davao when Juni was in high school and the latter was the “dynamic regent” of the College of the Ateneo there.
The assignment to the SCA in Bukidnon was during the early years of Martial Law declared by then President Ferdinand E. Marcos in September 1972. Together, Fr. Jesena and Bishop Claver “witnessed the atrocities and injustice done toward [against]the lumads and the poor.” His work there “must have worn him out” that six years later in 1979, Fr. Jesena went to Ohio to “rest and spiritually recharge himself.”
In 1980, Fr. Jesena returned to his post in Bukidnon. During all those years there, he developed a strong admiration for Bishop Claver and others like Fathers Alingal and Cullen. It was Bishop Claver, however, who had “a significant influence in his life and considered those years with him as the height of his career.” Indeed, until today the name of Bishop Claver still resounds with respect by those in their 50s and above.
Reflections on Fr. JJ Jesena
What I remember most about Fr. Jesena was his fondness for me, the husband of his dear cousin, which I thought was perhaps undeserved. Then I now realize that I probably reminded him of his younger days of social activism, as well as his love for writing to be able to share his life’s experiences.
I am even more inspired now by the generosity of his heart in sharing his time and affection with others who needed him. His strong love for the poor and caring for the sick are truly sources of inspiration.
As Fr. Balchand said in his Homily, “the third phase” of Fr. Jesena’s life was with “deeper anchor in spirituality and greater openness and availability to others.” He said Fr. JJ “touched many lives during those years–including those with spiritual, psychological and emotional needs.”
My children, wife and I are truly blessed to have been part of his wonderful life.